Ms JO HAYLEN (Summer Hill) (15:28:4): The Fines Amendment Bill 2019 seeks to simplify and streamline the process by which residents of New South Wales are notified of—and can appeal against—a fine or enforcement notice. It seeks to do so by keeping up with technology and enabling Revenue NSW to use new electronic channels to let people know when they have been issued a fine. For the first time drivers responsible for fines when a vehicle is in the ownership of another person are able to self-nominate. The bill also creates a general power to refund a payment, ensuring that overpayments made by low income residents cannot be used to pay down other fines unless they request Revenue NSW to do so. Finally, the bill increases the powers of the Commissioner of Fines Administration to determine appeals of fines and enforcement orders, which the Government argues will reduce pressure on local courts.
I will address a few key provisions in the bill. According to the open datasets published by Revenue NSW, since 2012 over 19 million penalty notices were issued in New South Wales, representing over $4.6 billion in revenue. Those numbers are mind-boggling, but the fact is that even the smallest fine can make or break people who are struggling from pay cheque to pay cheque. While New South Wales provides options for those unable to pay fines that include work and development orders and payment plans, unpaid fines can still send a person into a spiral of debt and potential destitution. We need to ensure that these options are widely available and that vulnerable members of the community know how to access them. While I support the bill, I want to raise concerns about those in our community who continue to be left behind by the bill and our fines system.
Last week a constituent visited my office looking to withdraw his superannuation funds early. He explained he had lost his job and was finding it hard to get by on Newstart. He is behind in paying his rent and facing eviction. His former boss was withholding his last month's pay and he was trying to tide himself over while the Fair Work Commission helped him recover what he is owed. Among his papers my staff noticed he also had an overdue notice for a fine, which he explained he just had not had time to deal with. He was fined for not wearing a helmet as he rode a bike out of his driveway and for other related infringements. Fair cop, he thought, and he was willing to pay the fine. But then he lost his job. The fine went to an enforcement order. He organised a payment plan, but fell behind on that, too, and now owes over $800.
Given everything he is up against, this fine just kept slipping down the list of priorities. He would have to leave it until he had sorted out his rent, his back pay and where he would get money to pay for food. My staff helped him to start the process of applying for a work and development order, and when he left our office he had one fewer issue to deal with. But fines can become much more than just another item on a to-do list: They can become like a ticking time bomb. Unpaid fines can lead to catastrophic financial or legal consequences for people all across New South Wales. One of the key reasons a person's fine can quickly get out of hand is that they do not know that they have it in the first place. The bill seeks to remedy that by expanding the electronic channels that Revenue NSW can use to notify people of that fine.
With the days of snail mail clearly being numbered, it makes sense that residents should be able to be notified about their fines through emails, apps and text messages. It is unacceptable that residents are not properly informed about their fines or that valid fines are being left unpaid because of mail returned to Service NSW. However, I echo concerns raised by stakeholders that there should be a backup provision in the bill to ensure that these electronic communications are not the only way that residents are notified of their fines. Vulnerable communities are often those with reduced access to internet and mobile technologies.
The 2016 census reports that fewer Indigenous Australians have access to technologies including the internet, laptops and mobile phones, with 72 per cent of Indigenous people connected compared to 84 per cent of the wider population. There is a digital divide, with phone and internet services often the first to go for vulnerable people who struggle to cope with financial pressures. The constituent who visited my office explained he had forgotten about the fine partly because he had had to cancel his phone and internet service, and had not received Revenue NSW's calls reminding him that he was behind on his payment plan. In response to the legislation, Community Legal Centres NSW writes that notifying people of fines by SMS or email will likely benefit people who regularly use a single email or mobile number, and states:
However, it may negatively impact people experiencing economic hardship and discrimination, including older people, people who are homeless, victims of domestic and family violence, and people with mental illness, who may not regularly access or check their electronic notifications, or who may have difficulty accessing or understanding them. Community Legal Centres also raised the fact that finding fine notifications on web browsers, on phones or via apps may be more difficult for people with reduced access to computers or who face general accessibility barriers to technology. I seek the Minister's response to these concerns.
Schedule 1  to the bill enables the commissioner to reallocate funds from overpayments towards other fines owed. According to the Minister for Customer Service's second reading speech this is already current practice. However, the bill goes further and ensures that when a resident is in receipt of a Centrelink benefit, express permission will be needed to do reallocate funds. Stakeholders have again raised concerns with this and pointed out that many vulnerable communities are ineligible for Centrelink payments, including the homeless, refugees, and victims of domestic and family violence. Stakeholders have argued that overpayments should never be applied to other outstanding fines without the person's consent. Again, I seek the Minister's response to these concerns.
The bill broadens the circumstances in which the commissioner can review fines and enforcement orders, meaning residents will have more options to ask for their fines to be reviewed outside of local courts. This is a good thing, as it provides greater flexibility to residents who may find out about their fines late or who uncover further evidence to contest their fines. Revenue NSW will now be able to review fines once they become enforcement orders, which the Government argues will reduce pressure on our local courts. Similarly, residents can apply for payment plans or work and development orders at any stage after a fine is issued—as opposed to the current system where they have to wait for the penalty notice to be enforced. This alone would have had a significant impact for the constituent who visited my office. In order to apply for a payment plan he had to wait for an enforcement order to be made—by which time hundreds of extra dollars had been added to what he owed.
This is cruel, punitive and unnecessary, and I welcome the change. However, I note the concerns of Community Legal Centres that this reform should not come at the cost of local courts' ability to issue annulments of fines. The Fines Amendment Bill 2019 promises to streamline the process by which residents are notified of fines and how they pay, manage or contest fines. That is a good thing. I support the bill as a step forward in giving vulnerable people greater control over their fines. Embracing technology and providing greater flexibility in how people manage their fines is admirable, but we have to ensure the necessary safeguards are in place so that no‑one is left behind by the system.